Secretary-General hails progress on mangrove action

Secretary-General Patricia Scotland celebrated new in-roads made by Sri Lanka, chair of the Commonwealth’s Blue Charter Action Group on mangroves, by planting a mangrove plant in the country’s famous Koggala Lagoon.

The area is home to 10 out of the 22 true mangrove species found in Sri Lanka, and the site of extensive mangrove restoration efforts involving local communities, businesses and the government.

With about a quarter of the population living on 1300km of coastline, Sri Lanka’s mangroves are vital for the safety and livelihoods of coastal communities.

Ms Scotland said: “I am very pleased and proud that Sri Lanka has made the decision to lead the Blue Charter Group on mangroves.

“This work is going to be of pivotal importance if we are to achieve the aspirations set out in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, for reducing carbon and turning our globe into somewhere which is truly sustainable for our children in the future.”

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is an agreement made by all 53 member states to work actively together to tackle ocean-related challenges.

Currently, twelve ‘champion countries’ lead nine action groups made of like-minded nations, who pursue joint strategies and action on issues like marine pollution, climate change andcoral reef restoration.

Sri Lanka champions the action group on mangrove ecosystems and livelihoods, which held its first meeting last month in Negombo.

Members include Sri Lanka (Champion), Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu and the UK.

Director General of Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change at Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, HasanthiUrugodawatte Dissanayake, said: “Since holding our action group’s inaugural meeting on 7-9 October, Sri Lanka has demarcated 14,000 hectares of land which includes thousands of hectares to be allocated for mangroves.

“Above all, it is creating a common understanding of contribution of mangrove ecosystems to livelihoods and as a carbon sink.”

The country also made a voluntary commitment at the global ocean summit recently held in Oslo, Norway – the ‘Our Ocean’ conference – to identify all potential suitable areas for mangrove restoration and design a way to replant trees in these areas by 2030.

Sri Lanka also plans to expand its task force for mangrove restoration to engage all stakeholders from government, private sector and community based organisations.

The Secretary-General’s visit was hosted by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and the INSEE Cement Company – a green cement producer currently carrying out mangrove planting of around 4,500 plants in the Koggala Lagoon area.

Commonwealth action group on mangroves meets in Sri Lanka

Commonwealth countries are meeting this week in Negombo, Sri Lanka to decide on a work plan to help save the world’s mangroves.

The plan includes joint actions, projects and funding strategies for the short and medium term.

The activity is part of the work carried out under the Commonwealth Blue Charter – an agreement by all 53 Commonwealth countries to actively co-operate to solve ocean-related challenges and meet global commitments on sustainable ocean development.

The Blue Charter works through voluntary action groups led by ‘champion countries’, who rally around issues such as marine pollution and the sustainable blue economy.

Home to over 19,000 hectares of mangroves, Sri Lanka champions the Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods Action Group (MELAG). To date, nine other Commonwealth countries have joined MELAG, including Australia, Bangladesh, Vanuatu, Bahamas, Nigeria, Jamaica, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Sri Lanka’s Director General of Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Hasanthi Urugodawatte Dissanayake said: “Given that Sri Lanka is ranked number 2 on the Global Climate Risk index in 2019, it is natural that Sri Lanka has stepped forward as champion of the MELAG.

“The first meeting of the MELAG has allowed Commonwealth members to share experiences and expertise to compliment global efforts in the protection and restoration of mangroves.”

The workshop highlights the importance of mangroves – which generate far-reaching environmental and economic benefits – as a global ocean issue.

Aside from being a habitat and nursery grounds for various plants and animals, mangrove ecosystems can absorb three to four times more carbon than tropical upland forests, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. Mangroves prevent coastal erosion, protect shorelines, while also providing livelihoods for coastal communities, through fisheries and ecotourism.

However, more than half of global mangrove cover has been lost over the last 50 years, partly due to extreme pressure from human activities.

Commonwealth Adviser Heidi Prislan, who co-organised the event, said: “Several Commonwealth member states have very large areas of mangrove. This means that action taken to protect and restore mangroves in the Commonwealth will have a significant global impact.”

Activities being planned for the group include developing a database of mangrove ecosystems in the Commonwealth, sharing technical know-how and best practices on mangrove restoration, and strengthening community partnerships and legal frameworks.

Commonwealth countries rally behind ocean action

A gathering hosted by the New Zealand High Commission at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Monday, heard widespread support for the various action groups under the Blue Charter, which was unveiled by Commonwealth leaders at their last meeting in April.

Actions groups are led by ‘champion countries’ and focus on eight key areas: marine plastic pollution, blue economy, coral reef protection and restoration, mangroves, ocean acidification, ocean and climate change, ocean observations and aquaculture.

New Zealand Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage called the Blue Charter initiative a “model for bold, coordinated leadership.” As champion for the action group on ocean acidification,

New Zealand will focus on building a better understanding of the issue, identifying challenges, and connecting Commonwealth countries to ocean acidification networks.

“We are really impressed and pleased by the many Commonwealth countries that are involved in the action group [on ocean acidification],” said Hon Sage, acknowledging Australia, Barbados, Canada, Mozambique, Samoa, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the UK.

Thérèse Coffey, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Areas added: “The Blue Charter is so important, not only for Commonwealth countries, but for the entire world… I’m really proud to be working with Vanuatu taking forward action on the Clean Oceans Alliance and I’m very proud that we’re also joining other action groups.”

Alongside Vanuatu, the UK leads the action group on marine pollution, which includes 20 members in total from all regions of the Commonwealth.

“This is something that the Commonwealth can celebrate. I’m really pleased the Commonwealth Secretariat is continuing to make sure that these things come through, but together as nations we really can be champions for something that is exceptionally precious to us,” she said.

Special guest at the event, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Oceans, Peter Thomson, commended the “wave of ocean action” in the international community, and encouraged collaboration with the United Nations Communities on Ocean Action.

Delegates from Fiji and Australia also made presentations on their countries’ ocean activities. Fiji leads the action group on ocean and climate change, and is planning an event on the Blue Charter in the margins of the UN Climate Change Conference COP24, to be held in Poland in December.

Commonwealth Director of Trade, Oceans and Natural Resources, Paulo Kautoke recognised the crucial role of the ocean in Commonwealth economies, cultures and communities, and called on governments as well as non-government organisations to join the action groups and intensify collaboration on ocean issues.



Sri Lanka’s trauma of tsunami turns into a defence for tomorrow

It is hard to imagine that only 14 years ago Sri Lanka was severely devastated by the tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

Its waves submerged the southwestern part of Sri Lanka, killing tens of thousands and destroying the infrastructure.

But there is a lesson to be learnt here. Had Sri Lankans realised that through the destruction of a natural form of defence by chopping down the mangroves, it is unlikely they would have taken this course of action.

For today, Sri Lankans are resolute about one thing when it comes to the protection of their environment: mangroves have to grow, have to be nurtured and have to be respected to protect this invaluable ecosystem.

So it was that Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland visited the country’s Kalpitiya Coastal Environmental Centre.  What she saw was nothing short of a miracle; the country’s mangrove conservation and replanting programme.

Where once local communities little realised the value of mangroves, today men, women and young children have taken ownership. Their united goal is clear: to reduce the impact of natural disasters like tsunamis. It was, said the Secretary-General, who planted five baby mangroves, a perfect case study of regenerative development to tackle climate change.

B H J Premathilake, Duty Director of Sri Lanka’s Coast Conservation Department termed the 2004 tsunami as a “driver” for the country’s scheme to protect all mangroves and to build back better.

“During the 2004 tsunami, we understood that mangrove ecosystem can play a vital role to protect people and their resources. Mangroves absorb and reduce the height and intensity of high waves. It holds a particular significance at the current times when temperature continues to increase and climatic catastrophes become more frequent and disastrous,” he said.

The Secretary-General congratulated Sri Lanka on its commitment to turn the trauma of climate change to a defence of global significance.

“We owe Sri Lanka a huge debt of gratitude because what their work to conserve mangroves will save our tomorrow,” she said. “After the tsunami, we all realised the importance of mangroves as a real protection for the coastline. What Sri Lanka has done since the tsunami to preserve, understand and restoring mangroves not only keeps Sri Lanka safe but it really is a signal to how we keep our world safe. The fact that communities [in Sri Lanka] are planting these mangroves, care for them, growing them, it gives me hope that we have a future.”

In April this year, Sri Lanka stepped forward to lead a Commonwealth action group on mangrove restoration, as part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, adopted during the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

The country now incubates a series of programmes which alleviates poverty as well as involves the community to protect mangroves.

“We started working on mangrove restoration programme with a vision to inspire communities to take the lead,” Mr Premathilake said. “The work included creating awareness about mangroves and showing locals the economic benefits of protecting mangroves. The programmes bring income to local people by promoting ecotourism in the mangroves areas. The financial factor encourages locals to take the ownership of this process,” he concluded.

The scheme is supported by the government and includes a combination of laws, regenerative development models and re-growing mangroves. It has formed part if the school curriculum, creating a future generation of environmental champions. The officials are hopeful that other Commonwealth countries will follow in their footsteps and adapt the lessons Sri Lanka has learnt on the way.